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The uniformed vigilantes

Having sat through over 50 films in the New Zealand International Film Festival I have taken a walk a few metres down the road to the Imax cinema to see the The Dark Knight Rises.  There were 150 films screening over 2.5 weeks and the festival closed yesterday.  Having seen so many films with so much variety it must be asked, why do so many people want to see instead want to see the new Batman film?  It also must be asked, why did someone decide to bring a gun and shoot up one of the US screenings of the film?

There were 100s of screenings as a part of the film festival here in Auckland and at none of them was there any fatal violence.  I did happen to be present for a minor terrorist threat at one screening about a Russian journalist who had been murdered.  I was the usher and so when a well-dressed middle-aged heterosexual couple exited the theatre they talked to me.  "We're probably just being paranoid," they told me, "but it's not worth the risk."  It was shortly after the Batman shootings and the nature of the documentary was political and there was a man sitting in the front row with lots of bags.  "I don't know what he's doing," they reported, "but he's not watching the film."  Wearing my volunteer t-shirt and my official staff card around my neck I quietly approach the front of the auditorium and sit behind the old man in the front row.  He has something on his lap, what appears to be a pad and pen and he is asleep.  It seems the real threat has left the building and it was middle-class paranoia.

Why should the middle-class be paranoid when they have the authority, power and moral conviction of Western Civilisation behind them?  I have just watched 50 films of various styles, various subjects and various perspectives.  Some of them I agreed with more than others, others I opposed; some offered me exuberance, others solemn revelation.  These films were mostly produced independently of the major studios that produce the multiplex popcorn accompaniments.  They were produced by passionate filmmakers who had something to express to the world, whether it was the loss of the death of their lover or the potential loss of the last pristine ocean on the planet.  These films were produced, selected and screened to overcome the persistent illusion and apathy that is overcoming our culture.  Who do they serve?  Most of them make little or no money.  They are not being shown at the multiplexes because they do not serve the culture of consumption that keeps the multiplexes alive.  I hesitate to suggest that they serve truth because "truth" is a word that has been rendered meaningless by politicians and their media allies.  But truth persists amongst illusion and the truth we can receive with our perceptions and process with our brains is manifest in this world in myriad forms which may appear sometimes to contradict each other.  The film festival does not select one three hour film to hand over to the masses for its consumption; it offers 150 films from many different nations representing many different truths; uniting the truth is the passion of the human beings who decide to dedicate their lives to manifesting the images in their head on the screen.

Down the road, despite rapid and widespread news about one lunatic shooting up a screening, The Dark Knight Rises screens in multiple cinemas all day every day and the masses march in to see it.  What does Warner Brothers have to offer them?  Gotham City is New York City and its period of peace is about to come to an end.  The terrorists hit first Wall Street to steal all the fake money.  They hate rich people.  Eventually they occupy the city spouting rhetoric about how they are going to give the city back to the people and throw the rich onto the streets.  They disempower the police and take over the city with uncompromising violence, advanced technology and synchronised hierarchical organisation.  Their tactics are those of the military, their rhetoric is anarchist and their intention is to serve their deranged and ugly leader.  The masked vigilante is of course an outlaw, but he has two things in common with the police; one, he is good (as opposed to evil) and two, he wears a mask (aka uniform).  The masked vigilante and the uniformed police serve the same purpose, to save the precious city from the terrorists.  In Imax the city glistens like the jewels of the rich as it is filmed from helicopters on 70mm film.  We see these shots throughout the film and towards the end it is described as "beautiful".  The film never leaves the city, except for one brief moment when Batman emerges into some middle-eastern wilderness before suddenly appearing back in the city.  The unmasked anarchist terrorists block off the Manhattan island from the rest of the world and no one leave or arrive; they threaten to destroy everything with a nuclear bomb inadvertently built by the heroes.  It is basically inevitable that this bomb will explode and kill 12 million Gotham New Yorkers but of course it does not because the uniforms and masks are placed upon the human bodies of the heroes of this city and they restore the city to its rightful rulers, the police.  Eventually the bomb is taken from the city as it is about to explode and in its final seconds hovers above the ocean.  Batman, serving the city that he loves, sacrifices not only himself, as is made explicit, but the ocean, a blue nothingness possessing neither a face nor a mask and the mushrooms can be seen by the Gotham New Yorkers sprouting out of the ocean that they may not realise is the blood of the planet they live on.

Can Batman die?  When I was a child I watched reruns of Adam West as Batman on TV.  At the end of every episode Batman would be in some inescapable situation that he would promptly escape from at the beginning of the following episode.  When I was a child a series of four Batman films was released between 1989 and 1997 that told the story with much more sophistication and violence for a more sophisticated and cynical world.  In 2005 a new Batman rose with considerably more sophistication and certainly in these latest three films an increasing degree of violence which finally erupted from the screen and into the cinema.  Batman is a symbol the film keeps telling us, and we all know that symbols cannot die.  It doesn't matter how many police the baddies kill, there will always be more.  Even if Batman is blown up by a nuclear bomb he, having served his people, having sacrificed his fortune and his life for them, receives eternal life, in the only way our secular minds can understand, happily ever after; in other words, marriage, heterosexual monogamy and financial stability.

Why would someone choose to bring a gun in and shoot up such an inspirational story?  Is it because screen violence provokes real violence?  Or is it because the same mythical tendency that makes violent gods appealing in violent times is exactly the same tendency that makes "superheroes" appealing in violent times?  When the people began to realise that their religious institutions no longer served them, when they were under the impression that even God worked for the synagogue, a man stood up and moved the power of God away from the religious institutions that served only the maintenance of their own power and returned it to the earth and the people of the earth.  Eventually the teachings of the revolutionary anarchist were manipulated by another religious institution that merely strives to maintain their own power.  What can we do if even God works for the church?  When these comic-book superheroes emerged they suggested that power can emerge from outside of the power structures.  They had no faces, they were like gods.  They fought crime though they were not a part of the police force.  It is 2012 and everybody knows that all our institutions are now corrupt.  All we have are the independent filmmakers, the vigilantes, those who exist outside of the system that not only is corrupt but corrupts those who enter into its mechanisms.  What can we do if even Batman is on the side of the police?  Why would we fight for the revolution, though their propaganda makes more sense, because, as this film proves, they are much more than the institutions, much more violent, they are literally evil.

What can we do?  We can submit to this film; considerately, for us intelligent masses it is much more sophisticated and therefore convincing than any similar film that has preceded it, though it maintains the sound-effects of punching and shooting violence that has become a gentle purr, the soundtrack of our modern lives.  If we submit to the film we realise that even in the most extreme circumstances, against insurmountable odds, we will be saved, poor helpless masses that we are.  The baddies that oppose the status quo will be stopped by our heroes in uniform and the nuclear bomb that our best people produced will be dropped into the vast ocean that will forgive us all our mistakes, even our nuclear mistakes.  Those who wear masks and uniforms are not weak like us because they overcome their humanity with their uniforms.

If our world consists only of what we see in films like this, and this is undoubtedly one of the more sophisticated examples on offer today, if we do not have access to a great film festival or some other culturally rich and diverse source, what do we do if the thesis of the film fails to overcome the pain inside us?  What do we do if the certainty of wrongness swelling up inside us is no longer able to be ignored?  It used to be that the ultimate image of powerlessness we possessed as a society was self-immolation by dowsing oneself in petrol and burning alive.  This image is outdated.  Today our primary image of complete and utter powerlessness is a killing spree with a gun with the certainty that you will not make it out of the school or cinema alive.  How could we be so hopeless?

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